Another Pay Raise For House?

Five months after lawmakers gave themselves a $3,000 pay raise, leaders in the House are quietly gauging support among the rank-and-file for another, slightly larger increase to take effect on Jan. 1.

Speaker Newt Gingrich raised the subject of a cost-of-living increase at a recent meeting with Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and a small group of senior members of both parties, said several officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

These officials said Gingrich asked Gephardt about the prospects for any Democrats stirring up election-year controversy if the issue comes to the floor of the House. Gephardt said he'd have to discuss the issue with other members of his party.

As of late last week, Gephardt had not gotten back to the speaker to discuss the issue. The two men flew together to Israel last Friday and it isn't known if the subject came up.

Congressional pay has been a contentious issue for years, and the current system of annual cost-of-living increases was created to reduce or remove the pressure on lawmakers to cast politically difficult votes on the subject.

Under a law passed in 1989, they are entitled to an increase equal to the base salary pay boost that federal employees receive, but are not entitled to an additional adjustment known as locality pay. Last year that was one-half percentage point.

The precise figures aren't yet known for the coming year, but President Clinton called for an overall increase of 3.1 percent in the budget he submitted.

An increase of that size would give lawmakers a cost-of-living adjustment of $4,237, and raise their pay to $140,937. An increase of 2.6 percent, minus half a point for locality pay, would amount to $3,554, and leave most lawmakers with a salary of $140,254.

The pay comes in addition to benefits that many other workers enjoy, such as health insurance and pensions, as well as special perks including free parking spots at the Reagan Washington National Airport a few minutes' drive from the Capitol.

Each year from 1993 until last year, lawmakers stopped their own cost-of-living increase by adding an amendment to that effect to a bill that provides money for the Treasury Department and other agencies.

A year ago, they allowed the legislation to go through without the provision, disapproving their pay increase. The result was a raise of 2.3 percent, or $3,072, that increased salaries to $136,700.

The same legislative strategy would be used this year to allow the increase to take effect, according to officials in both parties.

A year ago, some lawmakers expressed objections, but a bipartisan majority in both houses favored the increase, and there was no public outcry as it was working its way through Congress.

This time, Republican leaders presumably are eager to avoid a flare-up a few months before an election in which they are defending a narrow 11-seat majority in the House.

Outside group are ready to criticize any boost. "I think the principle should be that before Congress rewards itself with another COLA (cost of living adjustment) they need to reward Americans with additional tax cuts," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union.

By David Espo